Most schools live by a few simple tenets. Those basic principles usually include references to a strong curriculum, a caring atmosphere, and parental involvement. While most teachers work hard to develop and maintain solid programs in which kids come first, they're at a loss when it comes to figuring out where to begin when it comes to getting parents involved.
Not Bonnie McReynolds.
McReynolds has earned her Masters degree in parental involvement, figuratively speaking.
McReynolds' "PIE program" is an acronym for "Partners in Education," though it could stand for Parental Involvement in Education too. For that's what it is. Parents as partners.
"I've always felt that parental involvement was the answer to many of the problems facing teachers and students," says McReynolds, a fifth-grade teacher at Westwind Elementary School in Phoenix, Arizona. "I'm talking about problems of academics and social problems, such as discipline or tardiness."
And McReynolds' program is a success. The statistics (academic and social) are just part of the proof. Parents are pleased with the results too. They feel more involved with their children's education and more connected with the school.
"The program has carried over to our home too," said one parent. "We worked together as a team. I've never had such a great relationship with my son."
In 1994, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley announced the formation of a nationwide partnership to "promote partnerships that will increase parental involvement and participation." Riley based his statement on 30 years of research.
"Although I haven't been teaching that long," McReynolds says, "I always have known that the family was a critical link. Parental involvement must be a focus in the classroom if we are to be able to achieve high academic standards and create productive citizens."
And the research supports McReynolds' point of view:
A 1992 study (Barton and Corey) showed that controllable factors -- such as absenteeism and tardiness, the amount of TV watched, and the kinds of learning activities that are offered at home -- make a huge difference in the average student's achievements.
Reading achievement is more dependent on learning activities in the home than is math or science achievement (The College Board, 1994) and the single most important activity for building knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children (Anderson et al., 1985).
Dozens of studies point to one important conclusion: What the family does is more important than family background (income, parental education, marital status, family size, etc.). Parents need to know that they can influence learning. And, in most cases, they need to be shown how they can do it.
Studies show that schools must take the lead in actively pursuing parental involvement. Encouraging parents to participate in their children's education is more important than family background in determining whether or not parents get involved.
McReynolds' based her PIE program on the research (see Resources below) and on her years of experience in the classroom. "Eight basic and essential facts" comprise the core of the program:
McReynolds' PIE program actively pursues and involves parents as true and equal partners. She offers them five ways in which they can become involved.
Decision making. McReynolds encourages parents to set goals for their children and for the teacher -- goals that reach beyond those goals she has already set. The goals are stated at the start of the school year in a contract between parents, teachers, and students. That contract lists everyone's responsibilities and is signed by each of the participants. A parent is free to add to the contract specific goals for their child. "The goal of the contract is a very simple one: Helping children to learn," says McReynolds. "The contract is a tool to meet that end. It can change from year to year -- and even sometimes from child to child. If parents feel a need, we do whatever we have to do to meet that need as long as it helps the child learn."
Supporting. "Parents support their children in many ways," McReynolds says. "They provide shelter, food, clothing, protection, and love. They also need to support the work that goes on in the classroom." McReynolds shares with parents the research that supports the need for their involvement in their children's education at home and at school. Showing children that school is important can be done in many ways, and McReynolds offers parents many options and tools for doing that. Her next goal is to establish a "parent library," a place in the school where parents can find and check out materials that will help them to help their children learn.
Teaching. "Parents are teachers too," says McReynolds, adding, "Let's face it, children learned a huge amount from their parents before they even entered school. And a parent's role as 'teacher' doesn't end when the child enters school." McReynolds points to a number of ways in which "teaching" continues to be a parent's responsibility and part of a parent's daily routine. Providing time and a place for doing homework, reading with a child, making sure homework is understood and finished, talking about what is being done at school, and continuing to learn how to help are just a few of the ways in which parents "teach." In addition, parents can get actively involved in the classroom as volunteer tutors, as lecturers sharing their own expertise, and in many other ways. Last year, McReynolds says, a small group of parents got kids interested in participating in the Valentines for Veterans program. "That was just one example of a wonderful learning experience that came directly from parental involvement and it was proof that 'If it's important, parents will help to get it done,'" says McReynolds. "Kids got to see their parents in action and, more importantly, they got to see themselves as contributors to the larger community."
Learning. "The more parents learn, the more they are able to help a child learn," McReynolds says. "That means getting actively involved in finding out what is being taught, how it is taught, and how children learn and develop." Parents can take classes (offered through adult education programs, community colleges, etc.) on their own to demonstrate to their children how important learning is. Or they can take classes with their children; computer classes or hobby classes are two possibilities. McReynolds offers additional help and suggestions. She provides ideas for field trips that parents and children can take together to support classroom learning. And she holds a monthly in-service session for parents. In one recent session she focused on the children's math curriculum. The session's goal was to familiarize parents with the curriculum and to relieve the parents' anxiety about it. Other sessions have included a science fair preparation night (where McReynolds familiarizes parents with the "scientific method" through a fun airplane-making family activity); a session that explains the school grading system; and a field trip to a dinosaur exhibit at a nearby museum.
Communicating. An open-door policy allows parents to come into the classroom at any time. In addition, McReynolds offers regular communication through two newsletters. Those newsletters include information about the concepts that are being taught, how those concepts can be reinforced and practiced at home, a schedule of after-school help sessions, and news about a special citizenship program in which kids earn points for positive behaviors. The newsletters also include news of upcoming in-service sessions and special projects parents might want to get involved in.
"Parental involvement programs, if they are to be effective, must include parents in all aspects of a child's education," McReynolds concludes. "Parents must be involved as teachers, learners, supporters, and advocates for their children."
Is McReynolds' PIE program working? Yes, it is, in most ways that count. Kids who know that their parents are involved and interested tend to take more responsibility for their own learning and behavior. Schoolwork and grades improve. Work habits improve. Less work is handed in late. Fewer referrals for behavior problems are made. Attendance increases. Fewer kids show up late for class. Those results have all been documented.
And parents seem satisfied with the results. A survey of parents involved in the PIE program indicates that, when compared to previous years, PIE parents
This year, the program is being extended to include three additional classes -- a second-grade class, and third-grade class, and another fifth-grade class. And McReynolds will continue to present in-service sessions about the PIE program to other schools within and outside the district. In addition, this fall McReynolds and others involved in the program (including two parents, the school board president, and the school superintendent) will travel to San Francisco to present a session about the program and the importance of parental involvement. The presentation will be made at the "Public Education: Meeting the Challenge" conference of the California Foundation for the Improvement of Employer-Employee Relations (CFIER). The conference "showcases current and promising new approaches tobuilding partnershipsthat will carry public education successfully into the 21st century."
Getting support for the PIE program hasn't been a piece of cake!
"This program created a lot of questions, doubts, and fear," McReynolds says. "The concerns came from some parents and some fellow teachers. We [she and her students' parents] had a lot of support from the administration and from some teachers, but more than once we were told that it wouldn't work. Our motto became 'We know you believe it can't be done, but all we ask is that you move aside while we do it!'"
"The main concern," she explains, "was giving the parents equal control as active partners in the process."
"We proved that parents have and can continue to have a huge impact in our school and our district," adds McReynolds. "We have to be able work with our parents and to help them help their children. And we have to learn to reduce the fear on both sides and work together. Schools have to be willing to unlock the doors and encourage parents to become involved, to set goals, to become active partners."
"We've just begun to tap the most important resource we have," McReynolds concludes. "Our parents will be able to help us accomplish the highest standards possible for our children."
Article by Gary Hopkings
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 2004 Education World